21 Jan Flight 19 – Lost And Found
Flight 19 is the darling of Bermuda Triangle aficionados. Any book, discussion, article, or blog about the so-called “Limbo Of The Lost”, will undoubtedly lead to a discussion of the ill-fated mission at some point. Few other incidents in history have caught the public’s attention as this has. Until very recently, it was a mystery ranked right up there with the disappearance of the Ark of the Covenant, the Holy Grail, the Roanoke Colony, Custer’s Last Stand, and the disappearance of Amelia Earhart. For those unfamiliar with the story, I will elaborate. The popular version goes like this:
On Dec 5, 1945, soon after the end of WW-II, at 1410 EST, 5 TBM Avengers took off from NAS (Naval Air Station) Ft. Lauderdale, Fl. on a navigational training mission. They were designated as Flight 19. There were 14 men aboard the 5 planes (there should have been 15, but one plane was short a crewman). The take-off appeared uneventful, and it should have been an easy 390 mile triangular flight plan, maybe a little over two hours long. This was well within the planes operational range of 1000 miles, with full tanks. The TBM could stay in the air for around 6 hours. The day was calm with good visibility, but there was some weather expected later in the afternoon, well beyond when the flight would’ve returned.
The first indication that all was not well was at 1545, when the Ft. Lauderdale control tower was expecting Flight 19 to request landing instructions. Instead, the tower operators heard the Flight Leader report that he could not see land, and that he thought they were off-course. He sounded confused. The tower asked what there position was, but there was no answer from the flight. After a few minutes, the Flight Leader affirmed that he could not be sure where they were. Contact was lost for around 10 minutes, and the next transmissions were from the other planes, talking among themselves, and sounding very confused. The Flight Leader had transferred command to one of the other planes, for no apparent reason. The new Flight Leader reported that they were still lost, unsure of their position, and that everything looked ‘wrong’ including the ocean. Once again, contact was lost for around 20 minutes. The next, and final transmissions from Flight 19 were incoherent, and made no sense. The new Flight Leader exclaimed they were flying into “white-water’, and that they were lost.
All aircraft in the vicinity were requested to attempt to make contact with the lost flight, and it was hoped they could be located by radio triangulation. The planes still had fuel at this time, but a Martin PBM Mariner flying boat, loaded with full rescue gear, took off immediately, just in case. The PBM headed for Flight 19s estimated position, but it soon disappeared as well, with no ‘mayday’ emergency call. Planes and boats scoured the area for a week, but no wreckage of bodies were ever found. Flight 19s disappearance has been blamed on UFOs. Waterspouts, freak magnetic anomalies, and even time warps.
There are several things wrong with this story. The Naval Board of Inquiry records documented the incident quite well. There were several significant factors noted by the Board. First, this was a training flight, and all the pilots and crew members, except for the Flight Leader/Instructor, were students. The Flight Leader had 2509 hours flight-time, most of it in the TBM, and some of it in combat. The rest of the crews had 300 hours or less, with only around 60 in the TMB. It was noted that the Flight Leader, while being experienced, was not very familiar with the Ft. Lauderdale area, because he had just been transferred from NAS Miami. He had never flown this particular route before. He also had a history of flying “by the seat of his pants”, rather than using instruments, and had gotten lost on several previous occasions. Another factor was that none of the planes had a working clock onboard. After WW-II, aircrews returning home would remove the clocks from their planes to take home as war souvenirs. And lastly, shortly before the flight, the Instructor had asked to be excused from making the flight, for unspecified reasons. His request was denied, as no replacement was available.
The mission plan called for the planes to take off at 1345, and take up a heading of 091 fir 56 miles. This would put them over Hens and Chickens Shoals, where they would make practice bombing runs. They were then to fly 091 for 67 miles, then 346 degrees for 73 miles, then finally take up a heading of 241 degrees for 120 miles, bringing them back to NAS Ft. Lauderdale. The entire flight should not have taken much more than 2-1/2 hours. The Flight’s Call Sign was FT-28.
Flight 19 took off 20 minutes behind schedule, because the Instructor had showed up late to the briefing, but the weather was still favorable, with moderate to rough seas. Their ETA (Estimated Time of Arrival) at Hens and Chickens was around 20 minutes after take-off, and fishing boat near the shoals did report seeing 4 or 5 large aircraft heading east, at around 1500. Not long after this, several other Naval aircraft in the vicinity heard the planes talking among them selves, sounding confused and saying “both compasses were out”. One of them, FT-74, made radio contact with Flight 19, and was told they they thought they were over the Keys. FT-74 told them to put the sun on their port wing, and fly north until they saw Florida, then gave them directions to NAS Ft. Lauderdale. FT 74 offered to rendezvous with them and guide them in, but FT-28 declined the offer. Flight 19 did request that NAS Miami turn on their radar and try to pick them up. FT-74 asked if they had their IFF (Identification, Friend, or Foe) beacons turned on. At this point, FT-28 had the planes turn on their IFF gear. In the meantime, more than 20 Land-Based facilities were ordered to assist in the location of Flight 19, and all commercial sea traffic was requested to help locate them. Coast Guard vessels prepared to deploy in case a sea rescue was needed. Sometime around 1630, FT-28s transmission began to break-up, indicating they were flying out of radio range. At this time, the seas were becoming rough and the wind had increased to 22 knots. Ground stations continued to pick up intermittent chatter between the planes as they tried to figure out where they were. Several PBYs and other multi-engined search planes were dispatched to try to make visual contact. At 1700, the weather was deteriorating, and time was running out. By now, the planes would’ve been down to less than two hours remaining fuel.
A Martin PBM-5, call sign Bruno 59225, took off from NAS Banana River at 1910, with 12 hours worth of fuel, a 13 man crew, and full rescue gear. It was one of two PBMs launched from the Air Station. Aircraft and other radio stations in the area continued to pick up garbled transmissions from Flight 19, with one sounding particularly ominous. It was an order from FT-28 to the other planes that when any plane got down to 10 gallons, they would all ditch together. The TBM Avenger was a heavy plane, and did not float at all. In the heavy seas, it was unlikely any of them would survive a ditching. At 1930, Bruno 59225 radioed that it was outbound, and was never heard from again. At 1950, a tanker, the SS Gaines Mills reported seeing an aircraft catch fire and crash into the sea, exploding on impact. They went to the scene to try to rescue any survivors, but only found an oil slick. (Note-the PBM was notorious for having fuel leaks, and catching fire in flight, hence it’s nickname, “the Flying Gas Tank”…….).
After a few more garbled transmissions, contact with Flight 19 was lost for the final time, and it was obvious they had gone into the sea. Bad weather and heavy seas made search and rescue efforts difficult, if not altogether impossible, but operations continued for over a week, without a trace.
In 1945, long before modern navigational equipment and GPS, it was not uncommon to lose planes over the sea. In fact, Flight 19 was only one of several dozen that had become lost in that area, and the sea floor is littered with the remains of crashed aircraft. Some of the water in that area is quite deep. Contrary to popular belief, wreckage is not always found after disasters at sea, especially in bad weather. It is obvious that what happened was the Flight became lost, flew in zig-zags until they ran out of fuel, then attempted to ditch in heavy seas, resulting in the crews drowning, if any survived the crash itself. TBMs sank like a rock once they hit the water.
Since then, numerous TBMs have been found on the sea bottom off the Florida coast, but none have been Flight 19. After the Challenger disaster in 1989, several TBMs were located while searching for the Space Shuttle wreckage. In 1990, and air-traffic controller decided to use his own money, hire a min-sub, and look for Flight 19, using data from the Challenger search. He was able to photograph and upside-down Avenger, in 390 feet of water, 35 miles off the coast of Cape Kennedy (formerly Cape Canaveral). It was not possible to see the entire serial number, but the last three numbers, 209, are clearly visible in the picture. Flight 19s Lead-Plane was serial number 73209. According to Navy records, only 2 other TBMs had serial numbers ending in 209, and both are accounted for, one still flying, and the other in a museum. It is probable that the other 4 planes are a little farther north, in much deeper water. For some reason, as of yet, no one has wanted to fork-over the $25,000 dollars it is estimated to cost, to raise and salvage the plane. Maybe the world prefers it to remain a mystery, to thrill audiences with stories of aliens, time warps, and Bermuda Triangles.
As for me, well, the photographs were examined by experts and judged to be genuine, so I am convinced the ‘mystery’ of Flight 19 is solved. Once again, good science, and sound investigative techniques have prevailed. Sure, it took almost 50 years, but better late than never….